Tea through Time: A History in Brief

 By: Yolanda Saez
Finely ground dried leaves added to boiling water and stirred with a bamboo rod: Here begins the early practice of tea drinking.

In 2700 B.C., fresh leaves in hot water were consumed for medicinal purposes in China, but by 200 A.D., tea infusions became a common cultural activity, where the green leaves of wild trees were prepared as a beverage to be enjoyed daily. In this time, tea bushes were cultivated for their properties and a system of drying leaves and marketing infusions was developed.

By 400 A.D. Chinese exporters began to ship tea to neighboring countries, including Japan and Tibet. In 800 A.D. the first tea seeds were brought to Japan for cultivating, where new appreciation for the infused drink was born and was permanently grown in the region by 1200 A.D.

As early as the thirteenth century and by way of China and Japan, tea consumption traveled to parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Indonesia and India. Tea houses in China had also become widely popular. Marco Polo, the renowned Venetian adventurer, brought tea from China to the court of the Indian emperor Harsha Vardhana.

In the 14th century, tea entered the land of the Mongols, Muslim countries and Russia before reaching Europe. During China's Ming Dynasty, the traditional fashion of preparing tea as an infusion was put into practice. The method by which green tea was prepared then is still used today.

Moving into the 16th century Vasco de Gama established the first Portuguese enclave for trade with Asia. Portuguese sailors came to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, which became one of the largest producers of tea. At that time, spices, silk and tea were in the hands of the Portuguese.

Until the mid-16th century, only green tea produced in China had been pressed into pills. As the market demand grew, it became necessary to cultivate tea in a form where its properties were not lost. Producers of tea discovered they could better preserve the tea if left to ferment and then heated it for a dehydration process. This form of preserving tea provided a natural process of decomposition, wherein Oolong Tea and Black Tea were born.

In this time, Philip II was proclaimed king and the two largest colonial empires, Spain and Portugal, were united. Captain James Lancaster became the first Englishman to reach India and broke the Portuguese trade monopoly.

At the end of 16th century, sailors with the East India Company from the Netherlands established a commercial sea route to East Asia. They colonized certain territories in order to compete and in some cases displace the Portuguese merchants.

In 1606 Europe's first large shipment of tea arrived and a trade war between Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal began. Traders from the Netherlands later arrived in Japan and the Japanese government authorized a commercial market for tea with the Netherlands. The English went on to compete with the East India Company from the Netherlands, and in 1624, England had also declared war on Spain.

Dutchmen continued their expansion and established what would become a thriving commercial center in Ceylon. Different varieties of tea were offered in England from the East India Company. Around 1650, the first shipment of tea arrived to colonists of New Amsterdam, a city which later became New York. Tea became a drink popular among the English who lived in newly established American cities.

In 17th century London, Garway Coffee became the first public setting in which tea was served. The positive effects of this new and exotic beverage were noted: "Stimulates the body, relieves pain and headaches, cleanses the kidneys, betters one's sleep, and improves memory." Over time, tea became not only an essential drink, but one that played a vital part in the British Empire's culture.

At the end of the 17th century in London, the cheapest tea averaged 7 shillings per pound, almost a week's wages for an average worker. Still, there was a growing demand for tea from all social classes, resulting in a lively black market, which sold contraband tea brought from Holland.

By the late 18th century, Americans in New York and Boston had grown a likeness for tea; but, England put higher taxes into place, including a tea tax among others. To protest against such high taxes, colonists disguised as Indians boarded British merchant ships and threw 342 bales of tea in the water. This historic event known as the Boston Tea Party was a prelude to the American Revolution.

By the 19th century, the English had established a tradition for tea drinking, which now includes "early morning tea" and "afternoon tea" served with buns, muffins, scones, cakes and jams.

In the early 19th century, China was virtually the sole supplier of tea in the world. By 1834, tea plantations were created in India.

In 1843 Scottish explorer and naturalist Robert Fortuno stated in his thesis that the origin of tea, its flavor, aroma and color came from one single tree called the Camellia Sinensis. It was acknowledged that green tea and black tea could be obtained from the same plant and that the distinction came down to the treatment of the tea leaves during harvest.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, tea cultivation had spread to Russia; Iran; Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Tanzania, and Mozambique in Africa; Argentina, Brazil and Peru in South America; and Queensland in Australia. In the United States, New York merchant Thomas Sullivan sent customers samples of his different blends of tea in small bags. He had discovered filtered tea bags.

In this same period, an Englishman named Richard Blechynden hosted a stand which offered tea infusions from India and further served tea with ice at the World Fair in Saint Louis. So was "Iced Tea" born.

Today, whether you go to a tea shop, the local supermarket, or buy tea online, a variety of flavored teas are available with mixed spices, herbs, flower petals and fruit oils, all to be enjoyed in your favorite mug in the comfort of your own home.
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